I’ve been back from South by Southwest for over a week now, and I think I’m still on a bit of a high from it. I enjoyed it so much - much more than I thought I would. I knew it would be fun to meet up with friends from around the world and get to know new people I had heard about, but I wasn’t expecting everyone to be so consistently, ridiculously nice, and I really wasn’t expecting to get as much out of the panels as I did.
South by Southwest Interactive is aimed at people doing stuff in new media, particularly on the Web. To be honest, I feel only tangentially a part of this. I do have a blog, obviously (two, in fact), and I do spend the better part of each day doing things online (researching for my work, writing, reading the news and other sites, posting pictures to Flickr), but I’m not one of the people down in the trenches actually creating the stuff that makes the Web a really cool place to be. I’m not a designer and I’m not a tech geek, so I was a bit worried that I would be either completely out of my depth or bored out of my mind at SxSW.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. There seemed to be three tracks of panels at SxSW: the business panels, the techie panels and the panels dealing with the personal, social and intellectual aspects of the digital age. I naturally gravitated towards the latter. The standout panel for me was on “Digital Preservation and Blogs”. The starting point for this panel discussion was a project at the New York Public Library aimed at archiving blogs for the future, particularly blogs which have potential value to future historians (blogs related to Hurricane Katrina or September 11, for example). The discussion here centered on issues of what constitutes a blog and what it is precisely that needs to be preserved. Is it just the content? Is it the content and the design? Is it the content, the design, and the underlying technology, all of which together creates a snapshot of a particular moment in history?
As the discussion expanded into an exploration of the “digital legacy” that each of us is creating for ourselves - through our blogs, our Flickr photos, our del.icio.us links, our emails - my mind started to race. As an amateur historian, I’ve always been most interested in learning about the people who have typically had no real voice in the official historical record - women, minorities, the “common” people who went about their lives while great battles were fought and kings and queens decided their fate. I love finding out about the minute details of everyday life in the distant past. And it occurred to me that, thanks to our digital legacy, the historians of the future will have a treasure trove of such information available to them. You may laugh now at the mundanities of some blogger’s life, but 300 years from now, those mundanities will seem as exotic as 17th-century life seems to us today. That idea thrills me.
There were other great panels as well. A panel on book digitization led to some heated discussion of who should be in control of our digitized cultural legacy and the impact that digitization may have on scholarship and the free access to information in the future. The key thing I took away from this panel was that, when it comes to making wide-scale book digitization technically and financially feasible, we should not be turning either to big corporations or the government, but rather to distributed, grass-roots efforts - and I was very happy that a member of Project Gutenberg was in the audience to say essentially the same thing.
The three other socially oriented panels I attended - “Increasing Women’s Visibility on the Web”, “Bloggers in Love: Intimacy, Technology and Mask-Making” and “Blogging While Black” - all dealt largely with the identities we reveal, hide or create for ourselves on the Web and how these identities are accepted by readers. There were tough questions on how much of yourself to give away online, and even tougher ones on how much issues like gender or race matter (or should matter) for a blogger. While “Bloggers in Love” was entertaining and “Blogging While Black” was enlightening, I felt most excited by the panel about women on the Web. It was so encouraging to hear stories of how blogging has given women - particularly older women - a voice that might otherwise not be heard in a world that values older women very little. This panel got me all fired up about “girl power”, and it prompted me to join the BlogHer network and consider going to the BlogHer conference in July.
I also went to two quite techie presentations, primarily because Jeremy was speaking and I wanted to see him in action. I thought I would be in way over my head, and to a certain extent I was - but I also left both presentations feeling excited about technology and a tiny bit smarter as well.
But as anyone who has been to SxSW will probably tell you, it’s not really about the panels, it’s about the people - and I don’t think you could find a nicer bunch of people anywhere. I generally wouldn’t consider myself a “people person”; I often feel awkward in big groups, and I’m certainly not a social butterfly. As a classic introvert, there is only so much social interaction of any kind that I can take before I need to retreat and have a little “me time”. But something remarkable happened at SxSW: I felt myself become much more energized by people than exhausted by them. There was so much enthusiasm and optimism flying around that you couldn’t help but be affected by it. Like a lot of people, I left SxSW wanting to do something, wanting to contribute something, wanting to put myself out there more and be a part of something. I still don’t know quite what that “something” is or how to attain it, but I do know that the world (both offline and on) suddenly seems filled with possibilities, and I can’t wait to take advantage of them.